Most of us probably first came across the structural idea of beginnings, middles and endings when we were first learning to tentatively write short stories in english class at primary school. I remember my teacher saying to me ‘Yes, very nice, Lynne, but have you thought of writing stories that aren’t about Princesses and Princes? (it was all those ‘once upon a time’ books I was reading with such avidness at home). The teacher asked me this gently, but in a bored tone of voice. I couldn’t believe she was finding my stories boring and I went back to my seat thinking very hard. Could I change my stories?
Then later on in our education, perhaps we had to learn a more developed version of beginnings, middles, and endings for essays, with an introduction stating intentions of the discussion based on the question asked/premises set/chosen topic, then making points one by one in nicely connected linked paragraphs with evidence and examples to develop our own individual argument, then finally drawing all this together in our conclusion where we take one position or another as a direct result of our deliberations. Remember all this?!
Then later on again we writers would have come across structural advice on writing stories which was a far more advanced version of what we learned at school, but nevertheless derived from that time old tradition of ‘Once upon a time…’. And once upon a time a writer would go through this structure on their vintage typewriter and type ‘The End’, with the carriage return lever doing its final movement with no more bells pinging out the lines, after they’d finished their masterpiece – remember the character of writer, Joan Wilder, in the film Romancing The Stone, typing ‘The End’ after finishing yet another romance novel and chanting a ritualistic ‘read it and weep’?
And on to the now – where this structure has become one of finesse and calculation for writers of novels, all through the fictional time of the story.
Beginnings: Hook the reader with the first paragraph of the first chapter of our exposition section, with an inciting incident to get the action going. As the beginning develops and you’re setting the tone and setting, give plenty of character development and chuck lots of conflicts at them to waylay them. And don’t forget the subtext and so much more….
Middles: Give more complications, conflicts and contrasts, twists and turns, beats, subplots, all leading to a climax and massive turning point of maximum tension.
The middle can take up at least 50% of the whole, so this is the meat in the sandwich.
Endings: the aftermath of the climax, the falling action, the transitions, perhaps with another dramatic turning point, the drawing together of plot strands, the denouement with its untying of knots, and the final resolution. Whew!
The second time the issue of beginnings, middles and endings came up for me was when I was on a counselling skills course and we were looking at the structure of counselling sessions for listener (counsellor) and speaker (client) from the start of the process through to the end. A very much time-bound concept which of course is the whole essence of beginnings, middles, and endings. At first, I was cynical – oh, for goodness’ sake, they have to make up all these rules, all these procedures for everything these days. These things happen naturally, why do we have to intellectualise them? There was this three part structure for process, ways of being, and ways of doing, that was three sets of beginnings, middles and endings to supposedly remember. How could I possibly juggle all that?
I’ll just briefly describe this structure to show you what I mean in relation to the process component:
Beginnings: A coming together, establishing the relationship, exploring the issues, acknowledging fears and worries, assessing (my favourite, but of course I shouldn’t have a favourite part ;>)) negotiating the contract including establishing boundaries, and clarifying expectations. I can add that building a groundwork of basic trust is key here too.
Middles: Working together, deepening the relationship, widening the issues, exploring the feelings, insights and understanding, making connections (another favourite) holding boundaries (don’t leap up and hug them!) and reworking material that comes up.
Endings: separating, recognition of change or no change in relation to self, others, life context, counsellor, separation and loss.
So you could see a kind of mirroring going on here between counselling process and novel/story structure. And maybe that’s why we can feel cheated by what we perceive to be a bad or inadequate ending in a novel. That pay off never happened for us after the attention we gave the story. We stuck with the story from beginning to middle, and felt no sense of satisfaction with the ending. I’ve just read a novel which for me, had a poor beginning – lots of vagaries, knowing little about the central character, feeling as if I was in a dream or a ghost story, (with seemingly deliberately placed warpings and shadowy connections) but not sure which, so it was sending me to sleep. The middle didn’t deepen the main character for me, or clarify where I was meant ‘to be’ with them. The only fact that impinged was that this was indeed meant to be real life – and that deduction just made it worse. I kept reading in case the clarification or the point of the story was going to reveal itself, but unfortunately it never did. So even though I’m pretty open to all kinds of fiction and don’t believe in following all the rules necessarily, this just wasn’t a good story for me.
With the counselling practice groups, we never got to practice our endings, so I never truly appreciated structural process for listening, until I had the real life experience of some one-to-one ‘client’ matches during my subsequent volunteering, where I was able to put these listening skills into practice. And it was here that I saw just how delicate all three stages really are. How you couldn’t rush things, how you had to establish the relationship and trust, and how you had to decide together how long to go on for, and if there was a time limit , say of 6 months, then it was important to work towards a ‘good’ ending – meaning one which the match feels ready for and for which you help them prepare. And whether or not you meet again as friends (which is allowed in the charity I volunteer with) has nothing to do with the shaping of that time spent in that initial speaker/ listener supportive relationship, a relationship that has to come to an end, with an inevitable sense of loss for both parties, but which hopefully leave you both in a good place to move on from. And so I learned my lesson. And I realised that any lingering frustrations or conflicts that I have personally with people from my past or past situations that keep rearing their heads in my memory, have actually been because there was an unsatisfactory ending – there was unfinished business that was never settled.
But why are these structures of beginnings, middles and endings so entrenched in our psyche, and thereby applied to so many forms of communication and actions?
Well, the pattern probably echoes the cycle of nature – from birth, life with its twists and turns, trials and tribulations, through to death. And from death arises some sort of new beginning. There is a natural rhythm going on here and within the massive rhythm of life there are so many small ones operating all around us and within us all the time. And it’s this rhythm which we recognise almost subconsciously. And in any human encounter, be it large or small, there is this same pattern to it, and if we can be aware of it and act accordingly, we can ensure it smoothes and relaxes those interactions to make them valuable, positive, and constructive experiences for ourselves and others. Even if these interactions are tiny, they still count for something. We won’t always get it right and we won’t always have the self awareness in place, but we can at least keep reminding ourselves and try. I’m reading a Pema Chodron book at the moment, where she says the three noble principles in Buddhism are:
Good in the beginning
Good in the middle
Good at the end.
And although certainly an idealistic concept, I love the way this aim and pattern can apply to novels, creativity, relationships and life itself…and sometimes the circularity that may come from it too…
Here’s a couple of quotes which allude to this circularity:
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started
And know it for the first time.
Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anthing.
Maybe it’s about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you,
so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.
And these strike me as interesting structures and plots for a story!